HC Deb 22 April 1964 vol 693 cc1466-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

11.40 p.m.

Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr Tydvil)

I do not think that I need apologise to hon. Members for delaying them further at this late hour. Before seeking to raise this mater on the Adjournment I did everything I could to resolve the difficulty with which I wish to deal. First, let me say that while I am glad to see the Parliamentary Secretary here to answer the debate, I would have preferred the right hon. Gentleman the Minister himself to have been present, for he is the villain of the piece, if I may put it that way.

On 8th April last I received replies from the Minister of Transport to two important Questions I had put down to him. Those replies were given with such complete indifference as to border on the contemptuous. One of my Questions asked whether, in view of the factual conflict between the parties immediately concerned, he would institute an inquiry before this railway, or this part of it, was closed.

I also asked him …to what extent, in considering the proposed closure of the railway from Quakers' Yard to the Ocean and Taff Merthyr collieries, he will take into consideration the difficulties of distribution of house coal from the Abercynon and Cilfynydd collieries to Treharris, general goods from Brecon and Merthyr and coal from the Merthyr Vale colliery to the Midlands and North of England, which at present is normally worked via the railway yards at Quakers' Yard."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th April, 1964; Vol. 692, c. 205.] As I have said, the Minister's reply amounted to treating the whole matter with contempt.

The right hon. Gentleman said that on 14th January last he had decided to withdraw all railway passenger services from this line—and this notwithstanding any important facts that might have come to light since he had come to that mistaken decision. As to the serious consequences of the closing of the railway, the Minister told me, in other words, that he was not interested. That was the meaning of his Answer; he was leaving it all to the British Railways Board.

Incidentally, I tabled a third Question referring to the effect the closure would have on the employment of those engaged on this stretch of line. Again, the Minister's reply was that he was not concerned with that aspect and that the Question had been sent on to the Minister of Labour. Since then I have heard nothing more; instead of the Minister sending the Question on to the Ministry of Labour he seems to have thrown it into his wastepaper basket. In all my experience in this House, and it is fairly long, I have not been treated with such irresponsibility by any Minister.

I know that it is the Minister's habit—and I must say it—to play the clown both within and outside the House on matters of this nature. Giving slick replies apparently keeps him a very happy man, and gives him the illusion of being a very smart and responsible statesman. This is not merely a matter of the employment of the people there or of their social welfare or otherwise, but having regard to the right hon. Gentleman's attitude of almost complete indifference it is no wonder to me that the slaughter on our roads has reached such alarming figures, of which it is as well we should be reminded every time we discuss such questions as this.

Last year, there were 6,709 deaths on the roads, and of these 761 were of children. Thanks to the Ministry of Transport and to Government policy in general this slaughter must increase. The closing down of this stretch of railway will mean that the freight and passengers now carried will find their way increasingly on to the South Wales roads. During 10 days of last November, from two collieries alone on this railway line a daily average of 3,141 tons of coal were handled. During 10 days in January this year an average of 3,171 tons a day were handled, and in 10 days in February an average of 2,907 tons a day. I should like to make abundantly clear why I have taken the trouble to obtain these figures.

The closing down of this railway means that much of this coal and other freight will find its way on to our congested and particularly bad roads in South Wales. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will note that some of the colleries in that very neighbourhood are already equipped to send coal by road. A plant is already in being at one of them capable of filling a 20-ton road lorry with coal in so many seconds. One of these collieries supplies about 4,000 tons of coal a week to one Cardiff industry. The closing down of the railway will mean that it will often take longer to get this coal to Cardiff than it does at present.

The Quaker's Yard site, so conveniently near, will be closed. These are the sidings which on 20 days in February handled an average of 2,671 tons a day. Now far more remote sidings, some up to 12 and 14 miles away, will have to be used and some of these are already congested with all kinds of traffic. Hence, time will be wasted in conveying freight to its destination, with the inevitable result that ultimately it will go by road. This to me is a deliberately planned piece of sabotage of our railways and is part of the national sabotage of nationalisation by the Government and their handmaiden the Ministry of Transport.

This is, as I have said, not merely a matter of employment for our people, important as that is, nor is it a question of what is convenient to the public. It is supremely important because the closure is an added contribution to the present holocaust that happens on British roads—and South Wales has its full share of these tragedies. I am probably one of the oldest car drivers in this House. I have driven a car for over 50 years and I still do so. The number of cars on such inadequate roads as we have today has reached lunatic dimensions, where an average of 18 or 19 persons a day have to be sacrificed, thanks to the stupidity of the present Government in matters of this kind and their hatred of nationalisation.

I am, therefore, compelled to urge that this railway, which is, I admit, but a small part of the safest railway system in the world—that is, the British system—should be kept open. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary: why scream at an operating loss on the railways of £87 million a year when it is known that about £500 million a year is lost in road congestion and accidents alone? We are told that in this financial year £360 million will be spent on our roads, which are expected in 10 years to take twice the number of cars that use them now and a 50 per cent. increase in lorries. I say to the House, close this railway and the area will become a death trap. The coal that is mined must get to its destination in the quickest possible way, and now that these sidings are to be closed down the roads will have to bear the burden of these tens of thousands of tons of coal.

This is only a part of the lunatic dream, that we can go on closing our railways, imperilling some of our industries in so doing, and then adding to the murderous congestion that exists on the roads. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will pay some attention to this matter.

11.52 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Probert (Aberdare)

shall detain the House for only a few minutes, because I realise that the Parliamentary Secretary will want adequate time in which to reply to the case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. S. O. Davies).

I want to raise a new point, of which the Parliamentary Secretary may not be aware, and hat is that the closing of this line is clue to the closing of the Quaker's Yard Tunnel and, in consequence, it will destroy a very valuable communication between West Wales, going right across North Glamorgan, Monmouthsh re to Pontypool Road. I discussed this matter with the railway authorities only a fortnight ago in Cardiff, and they have put forward many important re: sons for this closure.

What I war t to impress upon the Minister is that while, on the one hand, we have the Ministry of Transport quite rightly praising the virtues of the Heads of the Valleys road, which traverses practically the same route as this railway, and streasing the importance of the cross-country road communication, on the other, he is prepared to see the destruction of a very valuable cross-country rail route.

One of the important reasons for the closing of the Quaker's Yard Tunnel is the question of the freezing of coal reserves for which the British Transport Commission has to pay the Coal Board, I understand, about £25,000 a year. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons put to me by the Ministry of Transport for the closing of this line. If, as it has been put by my hon. Friend, the Coal Board not aware that the closing of this line could involve it in increased freight charges, something should be done as between the Minister of Transport Lind the Coal Board to see whether this obstacle, at least, could be removed.

11.55 p.m.

The Parliarrentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. T. G. D Galbraith)

We have had two very different speeches in this short debate, one very quiet and the other rather outspoken, and, in the time available, I shall do the best I can to answer the points which have bent raised.

First, I must accept responsibility for these decisions. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. S. O. Davies) suggested that mf right hon. Friend was the nigger in the woodpile. I must accept the responsibility of being in the woodpile with my tight hon. Friend.

I hope that if I make a mistake in mispronouncing any of the place names to which I shall have to refer, I shall have the indulgence of hon. Members, because, although I, too, come from the Celtic race, we do not necessarily pronounce our words in quite the same way.

This debate is about the closure of the railway through the Quaker's Yard Tunnel to the Ocean and Taff Merthyr Collieries. This stretch was approved for closure to passenger services, as I shall explain in a moment, as part of the wider proposal to close the Vale of Neath line. The freight closure, which will result in the complete closing of the stretch of line, involves the four miles or so between Mountain Ash and Treharris and about a mile of the fork between there and Quaker's Yard low level. The closure, thus, has two aspects. It involves passengers and freight, and in each of these my right hon. Friend's responsibilities are different. I shall deal with them separately.

First, I take the passenger services. Here, the Minister's position is governed by Section 56 of the Transport Act, 1962. This provides, as I am sure both hon. Members know, that no opposed closure of a passenger service can take place without the consent of the Minister. Through the Quaker's Yard Tunnel which we are discussing runs a section of the Vale of Neath line linking Aberdare to Nelson and beyond. The railways wanted to close this, but it was opposed, so the proposal was subjected to the normal transport users' consultative committee inquiry procedure, Eventually, the matter came to the Minister for decision.

In making up his mind, my right hon. Friend had to take account not only of the financial position of the railways, but also of the possible hardship to travellers, the effect on the district as a whole, and possible alternative means of transport. These were the things which my right hon. Friend had to consider.

As regards alternatives, he came to the conclusion that adequate services already existed for most of the users. Such hardship as the closure might cause could, he thought, be relieved by the provision of certain extra bus services to help the comparatively few people travelling between Aberdare and the Quaker's Yard area and also those going to Hirwaun Trading Estate. As these buses would need a small subsidy, the Minister considered the possibility of retaining the passenger service between Aberdare and Ystrad Mynach only but the Railways Board informed him that it was its intention to close Quaker's Yard Tunnel completely if it received permission to close the passenger service.

Therefore, if a rail service were kept even for this short section of the line, catering for only about 20 regular passengers a day, the Board would not only lose £6,000 a year which the service cost, but would also have to maintain the line from Aberdare to, say, Treharris, which would certainly cost a good deal more than that. On top of all this, the Board would have to pay compensation to the Coal Board for reserving support for the tunnel. The amount of the compensation would have to be negotiated, but it might well come to a very large sum.

Thus, by granting permission to the railways to close the passenger service, my right hon. Friend the Minister not only enabled them to save all this money, but the decision also, in effect, provided the Coal Board with an additional two seams of coal under the line. Indeed, I gather that plans for two collieries—Abercynon and Penrikyber—assume that this coal will be worked. This decision of my right hon. Friend will, therefore, be of benefit to many of the constituents of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil who are engaged in the coalmining industry.

So much for the passenger aspect of the closure of this line. I now turn to the freight aspect, which is what interested the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil. With regard to freight, my right hon. Friend the Minister is not really concerned; he does not have any responsibility. His consent is not required to a freight closure. All this is laid down clearly in the 1962 Act, which gives the railways complete freedom concerning freight, because this is a matter for their commercial judgment and it does not involve hardship to people in the way that a passenger closure does.

Mr. S. O. Davies

When the hon Gentleman gets a little leisure time, will he look up the Written Answer given by the Minister in col. 108 of HANSARD last Thursday, when he took both freight and passenger services into consideration for the North of Scotland Railway?


I was very much involved in that North of Scotland Railway. Freight did not enter into the decision. I am sorry that there is this confusion.

It is clearly laid down in the 1962 Act that the railways have complete freedom concerning freights. In exercising this freedom to close down certain unprofitable freight activities, the railways are, however, not concerned solely with saving money. Their real purpose is to provide services which trade and industry need and which the railways can best provide but which a multiplicity of unsuitable and uneconomic tasks have, in the past, prevented them from doing effectively and efficiently.

Although my right hon. Friend has no responsibility and although the railways are free to exercise their own commercial judgment, I felt that as the hon. Member had been good enough to tell me of some of the points which he wanted to rise, I should ask the Railways Board for information about its plans. First, therefore, let me take the effect of the closures on industrial output, which the hon. Member mentioned. From what I have been told by the railways, fears of any ill effects are groundless. The Taff Merthyr and Ocean collieries will still be connected by rail with Nelson and coal from the Merthyr Vale colliery, like that from the Nelson area, can continue to get to all parts of the country by way of the Pontypridd and Cardiff lines.

The existence of the Walnut Tree branch from Pontypridd to Llanbradoch is helpful here. This link will also help in the carriage of coal from the Abercynon and Cilfynnydd areas for distribution, for example, to Treharris. The extra distances may, perhaps, seem long in relation to the distances on the existing lines, but they are still short, even for local movements. The distance from Abercynon to Nelson, for instance, is 31½ miles by way of Quakers Yard and 10½ miles via the new Walnut Tree route, while from Cilfynnydd to Nelson is 7½ miles by the old route and 154 miles by the new route. Therefore, the differences d) not amount to very much.

Another problem is how to deal with domestic coal and, indeed, coal distribution in general. The Railways Board, naturally, wants to stay in the coal business, if possible, but the reshaping report shows quite clearly that if the railways are to contir ue to carry traffic it is so eminently suited to them, as coal is, they must revolution their methods of handling it.

To take an example of what is happening now in many other areas, Treharris receives on average one wagon load of coal a week. To keep a railway open just for one wagon load of coal a week is plainly absurd, and in this instance the can still go by rail to Nelson, and from Nelson the merchant in Treharris can get his coal by road, and no doubt other places in the area will be served in the same way.

I know—and the hon. Gentleman has referred to this—that the roads in the area are not all that they might be, but the number of lorry loads needed to meet the requirement is likely to be very small indeed, and I do not believe that they will overstrain the roads in the least. The hon. Gentleman made a mistake about the effect of the Beaching Report, because over the country as a whole the effect of that Report, if it is fully implemented, will actually reduce the total road traffic.

A third matter which I know has caused concern is the possible effect of this closure on employment. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman referred to this and to a Question en this subject which was answered by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour. I do not want to encroach on my right hon. Friend's preserves, but I to understand that the Answer said that 26 staff tall would be affected by the proposed closure. Of those, three have already left for employment outside the railways, and four more are to leave shortly, so the employment prospects cannot be all that bad. That leaves 19 out of 26, which is not a very large number to find jobs for.

I realise, of course, that men who have given a great part of their lives to working in to be railway service do not want to change their jobs or leave their homes, and so it is good news to learn that the Railways Board has offered railway employment to these men.

Mr. S. O. Davies


Mr. Galbraith

They have already been given the appropriate notices under the agreed redundancy procedure, and they have been asked to state preferences for other railway employment. I think, therefore, that the fears of the hon. Gentleman's constituents in this respect will prove to be unfounded.

At all events, the railways have given local railway men every opportunity to discuss what is intended in the rationalisation of freight services in the Vale of Neath. I understand that a meeting was held in Cardiff, where 136 staff representatives met the divisional movements manager and the whole matter was thoroughly thrashed out.

I know the hon. Gentleman's great interest in this matter, but I do not think that he has been in touch with the local management. In view of his interest, I took the liberty of asking the railways whether they would be good enough to arrange a meeting with him, if he wanted it, and the railways have told me that they would be delighted to meet him and explain fully to him their plans and the implications behind them.

If this suggestion meets with the hon. Gentleman's approval, I will send him the address of the appropriate local officials, so that a mutually convenient time can be arranged for a meeting. Because of the railways' freedom of action in this matter, I think that this is the only satisfactory way for the hon. Gentleman, in the interests of his constituents, to pursue the detailed matters further, and I hope that this idea which I have put forward as a constructive way of pursuing the matter may appeal to him.

I have done as much as I can tonight to explain the reasons for the Minister's decision in this sphere of passenger services, which is all that he is responsible for, and I hope, too, that I have given in outline the sort of principles which guide the railways in the sphere of freight where Parliament has given them complete freedom of action. I think that it is very often not realised that the Minister has responsibility for passenger services, but that for freight services the railways, like any other commercial undertaking, have complete freedom of action.

I recognise that what I said on the freight matter is only an explanation in outline. For detailed explanations the hon. Gentleman must apply to the Board itself, and I have said that it will be only too delighted to have a discussion with him. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at ten minutes past Twelve o'clock.